Skip to main content

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived - Adam Rutherford *****

Science books can sometimes be rather stuffy or prissy - but no one can accuse Adam Rutherford of this. In his exploration of 'the stories in our genes' that word stories is foremost - and Rutherford proves himself time and again to be an accomplished storyteller. His style is sometimes extremely colloquial (and very British) - so at one point, when referring to the way some people react to the smell of a particular steroid he says 'to many it honks like stale urine' and rather than say 'what really interests me' he is likely to remark 'what turns me on'. 

I love the many meanders that Rutherford takes along the way, whether it's the horrendously inbred family tree of the Hapsburgs resulting in the sad case of Charles II, or the unique genetic laboratory provided by the small and relatively isolated population of Iceland. Rutherford is at his best when exploring an apparently trivial but genuinely interesting topic like variations in earwax type. This is dependent on a single gene and his exploration of its distribution across the world is delightful. This kind of material brings a lot of QI appeal to the book.

Though there is coverage of that 'everyone who every lived', for the UK reader there is lots specific to our origins and how groupings we tend to make don't necessarily make any sense genetically. For instance, Rutherford points out that Scottish Celts are more different from Welsh Celts than either are from the English. There's also plenty of delving into the past, from the latest version of Out of Africa to our relationship (literally) with Neanderthals. 

Darwin, as you might imagine, features quite a lot. I'd say that Rutherford rather overdoes the Darwin fandom, calling him 'the greatest of all scientists across all disciplines.' I certainly don't want to do Darwin down, as he certainly made a great contribution, but as the work of Wallace and others show, his ideas were very much in the air, so if you really want to make the invidious comparison of scientists this way I'd be inclined to say someone like Einstein, who with general relativity came up with something that really came out of the blue, probably should be ranked higher.

What begins with a genetic exploration of early humans takes us into all kinds of genetic adventures (including a section where Rutherford crushes a pathetic attempt to identify Jack the Ripper that was scientifically full of holes).  While I'd recommend reading Henry Gee's The Accidental Species as well for more of the paleontology of early humans, and the evolutionary considerations of our ending up the way we have, Rutherford makes humankind's genetic origins and identity his own. 

Mostly the book is hard to fault. Sometimes it felt just a bit too unstructured - jumping all over the place in the manner of an over-excited mountain goat. And the final two main chapters lacked some of the engagement of the others. There was a fascinating section on the worrying legal cases where the defence has been ‘my genes made me do it’, but that apart, there’s an awful lot at the specific gene level, whether it’s the ins and outs of the Human Genome Project or the relationship of genes and diseases, and after a while, to the non-biologist, this got a bit samey. 

Having said that, it’s hard to see how Rutherford could have written the book without these chapters and overall it’s a magnificent achievement, a big, friendly bear of a book that pummels the reader with delightful stories and no doubt would buy you a drink if it could. I can’t help but wonder if the cover was deliberately designed to pick up DNA - it has become far more marked than any book I can ever remember reading - if it was, it wouldn’t surprise me because Rutherford fills his book with clever little detail like this. Either way, it’s a fantastic popular science read.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…